The U.K. and New Zealand want to ban the next generation from smoking at any age. Should Canada follow? | CBC Radio

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The Dose22:46How effective is a cigarette ban in curbing smoking among youth?

As some countries move toward banning the next generation from smoking, experts here say Canada should weigh whether a similar ban could work to stop youth from picking up the habit.

Government officials in the U.K. are the latest to pitch a generational smoking ban, which would stop those who are 14 years old and younger now from ever buying cigarettes legally.

If passed, the law would mean the legal smoking age would increase by one year every year until it applies to the whole population. Officials there hope it will create the first “smoke-free generation.”

It would follow a similar law passed in New Zealand last year, which will also limit the number of places to buy cigarettes and how much nicotine is allowed in smoked tobacco products. 

The country’s officials hope this law will help meet their goal of a less than five per cent smoking rate by 2025, down from the roughly eight per cent of adults (about 331,000 people) who smoked daily last year.

“There have been many calls for the phasing out or banning of tobacco entirely and this is one way of doing it,” Michael Chaiton, senior scientist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s The Dose podcast. 

Surveys show that younger Canadians are turning to smoking less and less, with three per cent (or roughly 63,000) of 15 to 19-year-olds estimated to be smokers in 2020, a drop from five per cent the year prior.

However, the country’s teen vaping rates are among some of the highest in the world

Experts who study teen smoking and vaping habits say although these smoking bans don’t necessarily target vaping, a public discussion about a generational smoking ban and what that could look like in Canada is warranted. 

“There are lots of contextual factors that come to play that we really need to consider when we are thinking about implementing something like this in Canada,” said Laura Struik, assistant professor at University of British Columbia’s nursing department, who has studied teen smoking behaviours. 

A young person stands next to a brick wall holding a cigarette.
Data shows that Canadian teens are turning to smoking less and less, with about three per cent of 15 to 19-year-olds smoking in 2020. (ullstein bild/Getty Images)

Those factors include things like how teens turn more now to vaping over smoking, and that many of them are already getting their cigarettes illegally through illicit markets or older people, she says. 

She adds that any discussion would also need to focus on the consequences of a ban, how those would be enforced and supports to help teens quit.

David Hammond, a public health professor at the University of Waterloo and a leading Canadian youth vaping researcher, says there is no magic bullet, but laws can make a difference in smoking rates. 

“Obviously kids can still source them, but it makes it that much more difficult.”

Why generational smoking bans?

U.K. officials say smoking is highly addictive, and since most people begin smoking in their teens, the ban on smoking for those born on or after Jan. 1, 2009, could help to drive down smoking rates. 

Struik says studies show that people usually start smoking on average around 14 years old. 

We don’t yet know how effective a generational smoking ban might be, Chaiton says. 

However, he says there are other successful cases where making it harder for people to smoke decreased the likelihood of them starting.

He points to the U.S. changing its national minimum age from 18 to 21. “We’ve seen that that had a significant impact on youth use of cigarettes,” he said.

He says generational smoking bans like New Zealand’s and the proposed one in the U.K. won’t fully stop everyone from starting to smoke, but “would dramatically reduce the rate at which they start.”

Health impacts

Nicotine, the addictive chemical in tobacco products, can have adverse effects on teenagers’ health, from impeding lung and brain development to exacerbating mental health issues

“When you are taking nicotine throughout those teenage years, throughout those key developmental stages, there are some shifts that happen,” Struik said. 

Health Canada has announced new warning labels to be printed directly on cigarettes in an effort to deter new smokers, encourage quitting and reduce tobacco-related deaths.
Health Canada brought in new warning labels printed directly on cigarettes in an effort to deter new smokers, encourage quitting and reduce tobacco-related deaths. (Health Canada)

Smoking can lead to health issues later in life, including many types of cancer, strokes, heart disease and more. 

Treating smoking-related illnesses is a huge cost for many countries. The more recent available data shows that tobacco use cost Canada’s healthcare system about $5.4 billion in 2020, with best estimates showing around 45,000 people dying each year of smoking-related illness.

Does Canada need a generational smoking ban?

Chaiton says the New Zealand government’s overall approach is a “really great goal for Canadian policy.”

Specifically, he says their approach of reducing the number of places where people can buy cigarettes while providing smoking cessation support is really powerful in “bringing about the tobacco endgame.”

Canada’s federal government has a much less ambitious goal for reducing smoking compared to New Zealand. Canada is aiming for less than five per cent tobacco use by 2035, not 2025. 

WATCH | Australia aims to stamp out youth vaping

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Featured VideoAustralia has moved to ban vaping without a doctor’s prescription and several provinces have already banned flavoured products, but Health Canada has stalled on passing sweeping legislation.

Health Canada is currently reviewing a federal act relating to the sale and promotion of tobacco and vaping products, with public consultations underway until Nov. 3.

A Health Canada spokesperson said in a statement that the review also includes looking at policies adopted elsewhere. 

Hammond says Canada has “fallen off the pace” when it comes to policies related to tobacco products and smoking. 

“Canada is fiddling around with putting new warnings on cigarettes and sort of recycling some older proposals. Canada hasn’t done much of note in some time now,” he said. 

Eric Gagnon, Imperial Tobacco Canada’s vice-president of corporate and legal and external affairs, says the tobacco company has always supported stopping cigarettes from getting into the hands of underage people.

He adds the big issue the country needs to address with youth right now is vaping. 

“I don’t believe that prohibition works, but education and making sure they understand these products are not for them is probably the best thing to do right now.” 

A young woman uses a vaping device.
Although fewer Canadian teens are picking up smoking, the country’s vaping rates are some of the highest in the world. (Steven Senne/The Associated Press)

Struik says that any smoking ban for younger generations in Canada would need to include expanded supports for youth to either help them quit or reduce their use of nicotine. 

Right now, resources for teens — such as free nicotine-replacement therapy — are lacking, she says.

“Without good policy, interventions are going to struggle. Without good interventions, policies are going to struggle, and I think that’s where you’ll see things like black market sales of cigarettes prosper.”

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